Wednesday, August 19, 2015
I’m from Michigan, and over a recent five day period—because of a trip to Florida and back (via North Carolina)—my wife and I drove through Ohio and West Virginia twice. This trip was on the heels of a trip just two weeks earlier when we helped my daughter move into an apartment in North Carolina to begin an internship at UNC (yes, the sky is Tar Heel blue)—so four times we were on those states’ wretched roads in about sixteen days.
Admittedly, I’m a University of Michigan graduate and fan, so my dislike of Ohio comes naturally, but I’m mature enough to admit that not all of Ohio and not all Ohioans are bad. Cedar Point is an amazing amusement park, and I’ve been to Kings Island as well. I’ve watched baseball games in Riverfront Stadium, Great America Ball Park, and Progressive Field. I attended college in Ohio for a year and a half. I’ve been to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Cincinnati Zoo, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I have friends who live in the state. It’s not all bad. But as a traveler, this I know: the entire state is under road construction. I mean the whole thing. Not only are the speed limits on the roads typically lower in Ohio and the police force seemingly more determined to give out speeding tickets than any state in the union, but Ohio has a massive toll road and 700 million miles of road construction.
Ohio has only two seasons—winter and road construction. That wasn’t a joke. I was stating a fact plainly named on the internet. Cleveland-based Plastic Safety Systems Inc. is one of the country's largest makers of orange construction barrels (I looked it up on Google), literally putting millions of dollars yearly into Ohio’s economy, while managing to keep their manufactured product almost exclusively on their home soil. Industrywide (not just in Ohio), as many as 750,000 orange barrels are produced annually (another Google “fact”). Now, I’m certain that I-75 near Cincinnati, for instance, has been undergoing road construction non-stop (except in the winter “season”) for at least 30 years. Over 22 billion orange barrels have been produced in that period of time, and I’m convinced half of them can be found in Ohio since the entire state is currently under road construction. And by the way, can anyone tell me when I-75 at Cincinnati will be fixed? It seems inconceivable that there are construction workers who started working road crew as young adults who have retired, never having seen the section of road heading to that terrifying bridge over the Ohio River ever completed.
That brings me to concrete highway median barriers. More Google research says they are twenty feet long, two feet wide, and two feet eight inches tall—and they weigh approximately 8000 pounds each. Since I’m guessing there are a billion of them in Ohio (264 make up a single mile), that means there are eight thousand billion pounds of cement barricading every driving route in the state. Orange barrels are one thing—they’re designed to not wreck a car that happens to hit them, but an 8000 pound weight doesn’t tip over and fall away when a car hits it, so drivers white-knuckle their way through the entire geography of Ohio in hopes of survival—unless, of course, they are safely and securely stuck in one of a myriad of Ohio traffic jams the road construction causes throughout the state. Yeah, the only thing good about the roads in Ohio is that when driving north or south on I-77, they’re better than the roads of West Virginia.
This isn’t scientific, but I-77 runs through the entire state of West Virginia, so I took out a ruler, measured the legend on my atlas, and followed the route the expressway takes. The road should be less than 120 miles long. It’s 187. Yes, it’s more than 50% longer than the map says it is because it winds through the mountains at angles and grades that no one in their right mind would navigate unless they were determined to leave the road construction in Ohio behind and enter back into human civilization in Virginia (via an interesting tunnel through a mountain). No one would do that drive in the winter would they? There must be thousands of abandoned, destroyed vehicles at the bottom of mountain overlooks in West Virginia if people really do drive that route in the ice and snow. Seriously, I found an overhead, satellite view of the West Virginia Turnpike. It looks like this:
The Saturday Evening Post referred to that 88-mile section of road as "the Turnpike that goes to nowhere." Due to the difficulty and lives lost in its construction, it has also been called "88 miles of miracle.” It includes Charleston, which besides its golden-domed capitol building, doesn’t have much to look at—unless you discover the houses hidden in the mountainsides. Other than that, there seems to be no cities, no exits, and no signs of humanity along the turnpike except for in two places. Number one is the “service plazas” which are basically rest stops but are really refuges for the anxiety-riddled people who have braved the worst travel route in the United States. People exit their vehicles, kiss the pavement, throw-up in the rest rooms, eat long meals, and then take a Prozac before buckling up for the next section of road maze. Every bridge is called a “memorial” bridge named after a person I’ve never heard of, but most likely, he or she flew off a cliff in a Prozac-induced sleep. There are signs everywhere that say “Falling Rocks.” That –ing word is in the present perfect progressive tense, describing an action that began in the past, continues in the present, and may continue into the future. In other words, while drivers are grasping the steering wheel in a death grip, maneuvering through roads that go every direction except flat and straight, they are to look to the mountain walls out of their peripheral vision for rocks hurtling through the air in hopes of avoiding the pulverization of their vehicles.
The only other place for humanity is at the toll booths. Now, I’m sorry, but there’s no way I believe there are sane people who drive to and from home to set up shop in those toll booths on a daily basis. Either they’re insane or they are violent criminals on work release who inevitably will crash to their deaths before their prisons terms expire. The only other option is that they rock climb to work to begin their shifts and rappel home when they’re finished. The way the roads wind, I think all three toll stops are actually within a “falling rock” from each other and the whole turnpike is simply a legislative joke to raise money and convince non-West Virginian natives to never consider living in the state. The toll booth workers rappel home to their houses built into clefts in the wall or to spelunker into caves below the surface of the planet. In the meantime, white-knuckled drivers are motoring in weaving, winding circles for 88 miles only to come out five miles ahead of where they started. They could have hiked it faster and more safely.
On our last trip through on Monday, my brakes were grinding and my air conditioner stopped working. I had to turn the radio off because the only sound I could pick up was static. I had to turn my phone to airplane mode because the battery was draining while roaming for a signal that most assuredly didn’t exist. I’m certain no phone company is willing to risk employees’ lives to install cell phone towers in the middle of virgin earth, so the only thing we could do while driving through the state was sweat and pray. Well, we made it through four times in sixteen days, and for the time being, I love the state of Michigan to degrees I’d never experienced in the past. Maybe the next time we go to Florida, we’ll fly.
If you happen to be interested in my novels, click on the links at the top of the page and to the right or visit Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Jeff+LaFerney or Barnes & Noble:
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Everywhere we look, there are “Top 10” lists, so I figured I’d jump on the bandwagon yet try to come up with something that’s unique. So, while I often make lists on my blog, I’ve yet to have a scientifically provable “Top 10.” Here’s my first effort—the top 10 things that apparently are easy for everyone but me (told you it was scientific).
1. North, south, east, west directions. I’m in a building and someone says that the help desk is in the southwest corner or a car in the east parking lot has its lights on. Uh, I’m inside. I can’t see the sun. I don’t have a magnetized needle or moss on a tree to help me. How am I supposed to know where the northeast exit is? Yet, you could blindfold my wife, lead her inside a building, spin her around until she’s dizzy, and ask which way’s north, and she’d know.
2. Touch my toes with my legs straight. My son once took the Presidential Fitness Test. I don’t know…it seemed like there were about a hundred things to do, all of which he exceeded easily. But he had to stretch beyond his toes, and he couldn’t, so that disqualified him from the award (because stretching like a gymnast is the end-all to physical fitness). Well, he comes across it honestly. His dad can barely stretch beyond his knees. And apparently, a person’s tight hamstrings are responsible for every back, knee, groin, and foot pain, so because I can’t reach my ankles, I’m destined to inhale ibuprofen like they’re M & M’s .
3. Change a door knob. Don’t you dare laugh. This is what happens to me. First, I can’t remove the old one without a hacksaw. Second, the first time through takes twenty minutes to line up the holes, hold the pieces without spinning or falling, lose a screw or two, dent or scratch something, and re-adjust everything. Third, the latch is always going to be in the wrong direction when I finish, so I have to start over. There are two indisputable truths to my home fix-ups. One, I will never ever get it right the first time, or two, I will break whatever I’m “fixing”—door knobs included.
4. Cook chicken so it’s not too dry to swallow. Colonel Sanders can hire anyone in the universe to make his chicken juicy and edible. Ya Ya’s, Chick-fil-A, Church’s, Popeye’s, and every sit-down restaurant in the world can make moist chicken. Every grandmother in the history of mankind can do it. Heck, Medieval wanderers always have juice running down their chins as they eat their poultry, cooked over an open fire while skewered on a stick, but I could boil my chicken in broth, and when I eat it, it’s dry as sawdust.
5. Remember jokes. I can remember details from games I played in from junior high. I can remember baseball statistics, names, and records over a century old. But if you tell me a joke, it flies out of my head forever. I can’t seem to quote a single funny joke or tell it right if I try. That part of my head that seems to get speared by a nail every time I venture into my garage attic must be the part that remembers jokes.
6. Wind a rope or hose or Christmas lights. First of all, I’m nearly phobic of all string-like objects because experience has told me that they’re unquestionably alive. No matter if I manage to wind them perfectly, they’ll be in knot that only Maniac McGee could untie when I go to use it again. So I’m just as sure that those objects fight me when I try to wind them carefully. Right…simply wrap it around my thumb and elbow…turning the object into a twisted pile of unrecognizable crap that’ll be impossible to untangle when it wiggles into a permanent mega-knot while in its safe storage place.
It would "imply" that strings are alive, which they clearly are.
7. Use a pipe wrench. My father-in-law blessed me with pipe wrenches for a Christmas present early in my marriage. I can say without hesitation that not one time I’ve attempted to use them have they worked. Well, they’ve scratched up and scarred everything I’ve tried to tighten or loosen, but they’ve never tightened or loosened one single thing. The guy who invented them couldn’t have been thinking correctly when he made those sharp teeth that sit at an angle instead of being flat to fit all the bolts and pipes that they’re meant to turn. And that little knob to tighten the wrench—with my fingers—has yet to tighten it beyond the point of slipping off and scratching anything it touches.
8. Tread water. Right, I’ll just lean back and lightly wave my arms and lightly kick my feet and I’ll float the day away. For me, it’s more like flailing my arms like I’m trying to fly instead of float and kicking my feet like I’m trying to rid them of spider webs by the force of my panicked motion. What I’m much better at is sinking and drowning than I am at floating. I can tread water for exactly fourteen point three seconds before I’m so tired I start fearing for my life. I couldn’t tread water in the Dead Sea…with an inflatable tube around my stomach. I’m of the opinion if I was supposed to float at the top of the water, my body should be duck-shaped and my arms and feet should be propellers.
9. Spell rendezvous…or lingerie, hors d'oeuvres, khakis, diarrhea, fuchsia, hemorrhage, lieutenant, or zucchini. Okay, hardly anyone can spell them, but it bugs me that I can’t either, and my spell checker doesn’t even know what I wrote. You know those times when it gives you a different word choice not even in the same ballpark, or it says “no suggestions”? I’m an English major, for crying out loud. I ought to be close enough to get a suggestion.
10. Understand the guy (or gal) who talks at the end of every radio advertisement. Oh, you know what I’m talking about. The guy who talks so fast that in ten seconds he says more than the rest of the commercial said in fifty. The guy who doesn’t ever breathe and says words at such an alarming rate I vow to never purchase anything from the company for fear the fine print he’s spewing at the speed of neurons might rob me of my entire net worth. I feel stupid I can’t hear fast enough to keep up with what he’s saying, and I’ll never purchase anything with fine print so fast it breaks the sound barrier. You can understand him though, right?
As I wrote this, I came to realize I’m pretty pathetic. The list could have gone well beyond ten. What are things you can’t do that seemingly are easy for everyone else?
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
I admit to coming into this blog with my mind made up, but to be fair, I did some research and read some articles. There are people who believe that giving e-books away is a good thing and some who don’t, so I’m going to present both arguments in brief form.
There are some good reasons to have free e-book giveaways. First, in theory, it’s a way to get more reviews. When people read the freebie, some will review it. Second, it’s a way to develop deeper customer relationships by directing readers to newsletters, webpages, or author pages for interaction. Third, it could motivate the e-book reader to actually purchase a printed version if they genuinely enjoyed the e-book. Fourth, in theory, it could motivate readers to purchase additional books by the same author, especially if the free book is part of a series. Fifth, of all the gazillion titles available on Amazon, the vast majority aren’t free, so free books could possibly zoom up the charts and get exposure that an author could never get for purchased books. After the free days, and the book is re-priced for purchase, sometimes there are residual sales, so that is when royalties would be made. And sixth, it gives unknown authors an opportunity to get their books into the hands of people who otherwise have never heard of them and wouldn’t be willing to risk money to give the author a chance.
So what are the reasons given to not have free e-books giveaways? The first reason is that the market place has become oversaturated with daily free e-books. Books are no longer zooming up lists and having the residual effects that they once were having. Secondly, because consumers are seeing so many free titles available, over time, they are beginning to devalue the worth of books. Free books are so abundant, that readers are less and less willing to spend money. Thirdly, the free book giveaways, especially in the flooded market, are not doing what they are supposed to do—get reviews, develop customer relations, and generate sales on printed versions or other works by the author. Fourthly, no other professionals in the book business are expected to work for nothing. Editors, designers, promoters, publishers, bloggers, and advertisers are all making money on an indie author’s books. If the author hadn’t created the book, there would be no need for anyone else, so why is the author the only one who isn’t expected to make money? Fifthly, what other profession do we ask the proprietors to give their work away for free? An author puts in time, sacrifice, worry, and discipline. An author develops and perfects and practices his or her skills and craft. What an author does is worthy of compensation. Finally, people are accumulating so many free books that there is almost no chance that they’re reading them, but even if they do, and they like a specific author’s book, there are so many other free books available, that they’ll wait around for the author’s next giveaway, rather than purchasing the books.
I have to say, as I researched and wrote the pros and cons, my opinion didn’t change. I don’t think authors should do free book giveaways. I’ve given two books away—my first two of five that I’ve published. I gave the second one away first, and it worked—about four full years ago. A couple thousand people downloaded it. Afterward, in the next few months, my sales improved dramatically. I made some money. I didn’t see an increase in the sale of my first book, however, and though I kept waiting for reviews, there were only a couple that may have been from the free downloads. About six months later I tried my first book. The number of downloads was embarrassingly low compared to Skeleton Key. I saw no sales jump in either of my books, and I didn’t get a single review that I felt might have come from the giveaway. It didn’t work at all. So I’ve had both experiences. But I was a newbie. I wanted to get my book in people’s hands, and I had more than one book, so I thought giving one away would help sell the other also. Times have changed in the last four years, however, and now I don’t like the idea at all.
Here are my reasons.
First of all, though I’m sure there are many exceptions and many people will disagree, what I’ve been reading and hearing is that most authors are seeing no significant evidence that giving away their books is getting them additional reviews and the expected increase in sales once the book is no longer free. For other books the author has written, there is little to no increase in the amount of sales either. It used to work better, so why are the numbers low now? I think it’s because the market has been bombarded with free books. People download gobs of them and never read them. Do you know what books they read first? Books they pay for. Those are the ones they’ve invested in. I’ve downloaded a ton of free books. I don’t think I’ve read any of them unless they were from new author friends or were books friends recommended. I have so many paperbacks on my shelves and books on my Kindle that I purchased because I genuinely want to read them that I doubt I’ll ever get to the freebies. That means I won’t buy the author’s next book. I won’t review it. If I ever read it, it might be years from now.
Secondly, there are so many free books on the market that I could go without ever purchasing another book if I so chose. The market is saturated with them. I have an author friend whose writing I love. I’ve read three or four of her books, but I have nine of them on my Kindle. She keeps writing good books, and she keeps giving them away, and I keep downloading them. I’m not cheap. I purchase lots of books, but when I see hers for free, I nab them in case I get a chance to read them someday. I have another author friend who gave away a zillion free books years ago when she first started writing. People were buying them too. It worked. Then her second book came out and she gave it away also. And a lot less people bought that one. After her third book—which she also gave away—she reached the conclusion that her “fans” were just waiting for her to eventually give her new books away. It was like she had to start all over and find a new fan base because she was hardly making any sales.
My third reason is not theoretical or disprovable like my first two. My third reason that books shouldn’t be free is that it devalues the product. I spend hundreds of hours on my books, researching, interviewing, planning, writing, revising, editing, and promoting. I, like most authors, have even invested my own money driving, purchasing swag, and paying editors, bloggers, advertisers, and designers. Why do I spend all that time and money producing a work of art that I’m proud of and everyone but me makes money off it? Editors aren’t editing for free. Designers aren’t designing for free. I think you get the point.
Fourth—a point similar to my third—is that giving away the books devalues the author’s effort. Every other person in the world wants to get paid for their work. I go to craft shows and art shows to sell my books in public quite often. People aren’t walking through the show expecting all the vendors to give them their products. Those vendors spent their valuable time and resources creating the products, but more importantly, they put their talent into the work. Athletes, musicians, and actors get paid for their time and talents. Authors should too. But the more people who give away their books, the less a consumer is willing to pay for others.
I understand the theories that a new author wants to be discovered or authors want to get more reviews or authors believe by giving away one book, people will purchase their others. However, from what I’m gathering, those things used to happen but are no longer a guarantee. People with multiple books are seeing consumers wait around for the next free book. I’m convinced that there are Kindle and Nook download addicts that download book after book without any expectation of reading them, and authors are giving away book after book because a handful of fortunate authors praise the idea of giving them away. Some authors actually pay advertising companies to promote their free book! People with one book are actually giving it away, and there is nothing new for their readers to buy.
Here’s one more thing to consider. Every day I get emails from advertisers like Read Freely, Read Cheaply, Free Booksy, Free Kindle Books and Tips, and The E-Reader Café. Lately, I’m seeing books by some really well-known authors. I saw The Maze Runner recently, for instance. Those books have yet to be free. They’re surrounded by titles by indie authors for free, yet the well-known authors’ books are not. They’re discounted, but not free. Do you think the authors who are making money know something that we don’t? I think they realize that giving away books is no way to be compensated for all the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into their work.
If you’re an indie author and you’re thinking of giving away your books, how about giving them away to people who promise to do a review or as gifts in contests for people who follow your author page and interact with you personally? How about giving them to libraries or proofreaders or beta readers or family members or friends who you know will talk you up? If you want to do a special promotion, just discount your book. I know I, for one, am far more likely to read your book if I pay for it. And isn’t that what you want me to do? Read it? As this market of free books continues to explode, it’s beginning to put the rest of us out of business. You and I deserve to make some money on the ten or twenty or fifty hours of entertainment we give our readers. We need to stop letting everyone else make money off our books while we don’t. Remember, without our books, none of those other people could make a cent. Giving it away minimizes what we’ve done, so I’m standing on my soapbox calling out that we need to stop the insanity—or at least slow it to a trickle. I’m of the firm opinion that e-books have monetary value.
Saturday, May 9, 2015
I happen to love baseball. I played it all the time as a kid, actually hoping someday I’d make the big leagues. I was pretty good, but not that good. I read baseball biographies, collected baseball cards, and learned about the all-time greats. When I first started planning for a career, I wanted to be a Major League Baseball color commentator. I still think I’d be better than a lot of them. Today’s blog is about baseball. Quotes from TV and radio, movies, players, and books will be featured.
I’m starting with a couple of quotes from TV and radio:
“The immortal” Chico Escuela, who was said to have come to the US from the Dominican Republic, was portrayed by Saturday Night Live cast member Garrett Morris in 1978. After John Belushi introduced him, he got up, stood at the podium, and said in a thick Hispanic accent: “Thank you berry much. Baseball been berry, berry good to me.” Who hasn’t heard someone repeat that famous line about baseball?
After 55 years of broadcasting Major League games, including 42 years with the Tigers, Hall of Fame broadcaster, Ernie Harwell, retired and has since passed away. Often referred to as the Voice of Tigers Baseball, Harwell would open each season before the first spring training game by reciting the "Song of the Turtle," a stanza that celebrates the freshness of spring, renewed life and opportunities, and ushers in the baseball season for Tigers fans.
“For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”
Anyone who has been a long-time Tigers fan remembers Ernie Harwell fondly for how he helped us love baseball.
Now for some movie quotes:
The upcoming quote ranked #54 in the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema. This is a dialogue from A League of Their Own.
Jimmy: Evelyn, could you come here for a second? Which team do you play for?
Evelyn: Well, I'm a Peach.
Jimmy: Well, I was just wonderin', 'cause I couldn't figure out why you threw home when we got a two-run lead! You let the tying run get to second, and we lost the lead because of you. You start using your head. That's the lump that's three feet above your ass.
[Evelyn starts to cry]
Jimmy: Are you crying? Are you crying? Are you crying?! There's no crying! There's no crying in baseball!
Because of this movie and Tom Hanks, anyone who’s played the game knows “there’s no crying in baseball.”
Here is a direct quote from the 1993 film, Sandlot. After being asked by Ham Porter if he wanted a s'more, Scotty Smalls replies several times with the question, "Some more what?" After his frustration grew with Scotty, Ham replies with, "You're killing me, Smalls." This phrase is commonly used to express discontent or frustration toward a person, and yes, it came from a baseball movie.
From Field of Dreams, I included two dialogues that I love. One made me laugh and one touched my heart.
The pitcher knocks Archie Graham, the doctor who goes back to his youth to get a second chance to play with professional baseball players—the rookie—twice into the dirt with high, inside fastballs.
Archie Graham: Hey, ump, how 'bout a warning?
Clean-shaven umpire: Sure, kid. Watch out you don't get killed.
Shoeless Joe Jackson (talking to Archie): The first two were high and tight, so where do you think the next one's gonna be?
Archie Graham: Well, either low and away, or in my ear.
Shoeless Joe Jackson: He's not gonna wanna load the bases, so look low and away.
Archie Graham: Right.
Shoeless Joe Jackson: But watch out for in your ear.
The next one is Kevin Costner getting a second chance with his dad. Ray is Kevin Costner.
John Kinsella: Well, good night, Ray.
Ray Kinsella: Good night, John.
[They shake hands and John begins to walk away]
Ray Kinsella: Hey... Dad?
Ray Kinsella: [choked up] You wanna have a catch?
John Kinsella: I'd like that.
Here’s another movie quote I hear all the time from Major League. Rookie sensation, Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) was pitching his first game, sans the thick-framed glasses. The stadium was empty and Harry Doyle (Bob Uecker) was announcing the radio play-by-play. Sheen uncorked a wild pitch about six feet outside that bounced off the stadium wall behind, and what did Uecker say for his listeners? “JUST a bit outside.”
Next are some quotes from Major League Baseball:
"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Lou Gehrig said this at Yankee Stadium the day he officially retired from baseball. He was dying of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord—Lou Gehrig’s Disease), yet because of baseball, he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
Before signing Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey (the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers) made it very clear that: “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” Rickey was looking for an individual who was both a great athlete and a “gentleman”—a person with the inner-strength and self-restraint who could withstand intense hostility and aggression without being reactive. He needed an athlete who wouldn't perceive “not fighting back” as a sign of weakness or lack of courage. In Mickey Mantle’s auto-biography (which I read as a kid) called The Quality of Courage, Mantle explains how not everyone liked Jackie Robinson but he’d never run across anyone who didn’t respect him. Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, so he gets credit for ushering in a huge percentage of my favorite players.
Ernie Banks, nicknamed “Mr. Cub” and “Mr. Sunshine,” was a Major League Baseball shortstop and first baseman for 19 seasons from 1953 through 1971—thanks partly to Jackie Robinson. He loved the game and his words are often quoted on a beautiful summer day. “It’s a great day for baseball. Let’s play two.”
“It’s a round ball and a round bat, and you have to hit it square.” Pete Rose or Ted Williams or Willie Stargell is credited with this quote. I included it because I like it, plus I once heard a humorous description of a square ball and a square bat and a player trying to hit the ball around.
A reporter asked superstar, Joe DiMaggio, "Why did you play so hard?"
"Because there might have been somebody in the stands today who'd never seen me play before, and might never see me again.”
I like how he felt obligated to give his best every day.
Here are a few quotes from well-known authors about baseball:
“[Baseball] is a game with a lot of waiting in it; it is a game with increasingly heightened anticipation of increasingly limited action.” ― John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
“Baseball is a good thing. Always was, always will be”…. “Baseball is also a game of balance.”― Stephen King, Blockade Billy
“My instinct is a winning coach, and when it said ‘Batter up,’ I didn't argue that I wasn't ready for the game. I gripped the bat in both hands, assumed the stance, and said a prayer to Mickey Mantle.”― Dean Koontz, Odd Thomas
“Baseball isn't just a game. It's the smell of popcorn drifting in the air, the sight of bugs buzzing near the stadium lights, the roughness of the dirt beneath your cleats. It's the anticipation building in your chest as the anthem plays, the adrenaline rush when your bat cracks against the ball, and the surge of blood when the umpire shouts strike after you pitch. It's a team full of guys backing your every move, a bleacher full of people cheering you on. It's...life.” ― Katie McGarry, Dare You To
And finally, from another sports biography that I read as a kid, Jim Bouton, author of Ball Four, said, “You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
Yes, baseball has gripped me my entire life. It’s been “berry berry good to me.” It’s America’s greatest pastime. And Smalls, like “The Song of the Turtle,” it has showed renewed opportunities, broken the color barrier, united father and son, made us laugh and cry, and showed us a slice of life that stays in our vocabularies and gives us images of people proud enough to give their best every day. “It’s life” so why not play two?
Thursday, April 2, 2015
I’m a school teacher in Michigan. We’re about to embark upon the M-STEP, which replaces the MEAP test. The state of Michigan, like most states, has determined what all of our core standards must be, and then in its supposed wisdom, our state ascertained that it could write a test which proves once and for all whether or not our students, teachers, and schools are succeeding. I won’t go into any of the year-long mysteries about this assessment or technological issues involved in the taking of this tool. I won’t even go into the scheduling issues or stress factors or the fact that students are being exposed to the test for the first time and teachers only recently finding out what “might” be on it and what it’ll look like. It’s all for the good of education according to the legislators. School districts, teachers, and students will be judged by it. Students will learn if they’re proficient or not in a set of core standards that legislators decided would be best. But that is not what I’m writing about, lest you think I’m being negative. I’m writing about those students in my classroom who don’t care about the thing—and how much it bothers me.
Believe me, I hear the complaints and concerns of students, parents, and teachers alike, but my response is that it doesn’t matter. It’s a test. It’s required. It’s what we’re told to do, so we should do it. Maybe it’s fair and maybe it’s not, but why does that matter? Maybe it’s a bad test and maybe it’s not, but how should that affect people’s attitudes? One of my favorite quotes is “Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.” There’s no way to prove that quote to be true, but what it’s saying is…improve your attitude and do what you have to do. Make the most of life’s circumstances. Stop whining, complaining, moaning, and groaning. Do your best with what life gives you. And what the public schools happen to be giving us right now are core standards and standardized tests. So we need to do them.
I have a lot of pet peeves in this world. Most have to do with grammar. Some have to do with people with bad attitudes. If the government told 16-year-olds that they had to log 200 hours of drive time before they could get their licenses, they’d all drive 200 hours because it’s important to them. If in order to go to the prom, they had to wear a tie or a dress, they’d wear a tie or a dress. If the sports coach said that everyone had to wear warm-up jerseys for pre-game warm-ups, they’d all wear the jerseys whether they wanted to or not. If a parent said to a child, “You can’t have dessert until you eat your vegetables,” the child would eat his vegetables. If a publisher said, “I’ll only publish this book if you cut 30,000 words from it,” the writer would swallow his or her pride and find 30,000 superfluous words to cut. If the county sent a letter requiring a citizen to show up for jury duty, the person would make arrangements to be there.
I could think of 100,000 examples of how life is. Do what your boss says. Play by the rules. Obey your parents. Abide by the country’s laws. We are always being told what to do. You know, I hate paying my property taxes, but I kind of like my house and where I live, so I pay them. I don’t like getting penalized when I make late loan payments, so I make them before someone else’s arbitrary cut-off date. I don’t like that I can’t drive 80 plus on the expressway. It would save time to drive over 80, wouldn’t it? I wish I didn’t have to be a certain age to get a full retirement or draw social security. I don’t like it when my exit is closed and I have to make a detour. I truly wish my grass didn’t grow continuously so I have to keep cutting it. But life is what it is, so I do life. It doesn’t matter if I like it, if it’s fair, or if it’s stupid. It doesn’t matter if it seems like a waste of time, if I think the person who told me to do it is an idiot, or if it’s not what I want to do. My life is filled with me being expected to do things I don’t like or want to do.
There are some rewarding things about my job and some things that are a pain in my behind, but it’s my job to do them all. And students…it’s your job to take the standardized test whether you like it or not. Which leads me to the real reason I’m ranting. I’ve established life is packed full of inconveniences and things we don’t like or don’t want to do. I’ve established that those things don’t matter too awfully much. We just do them. And I’ve established that our attitudes need to be better. So here I am with this incredibly profound statement. Since you have to take the test, you should do your best! We’re taking time in our classrooms to give the kids a little insight into what to expect from this brand new M-STEP test, so shouldn’t they be listening? Shouldn’t they be practicing? Shouldn’t they be planning on doing A, B, and C so they do their very best? Here’s the big question. Shouldn’t they care? If my coach told me I had one minute to make as many layups as I could, I’d try to make them all. If I knew I was playing a solo at a recital, I’d practice. And while I was playing, I’d try not to make a mistake. If I had a part in a play, I’d learn my lines so I could be proud of my performance. If I was white-water rafting and heading to a class five rapid and my guide told me to paddle as hard as I could or I might die, I’d paddle exactly like I didn’t want to die. If I had a special date, I’d plan and prepare so I’d make a good impression. If I was taking an on-line IQ test, I’d darn well try to get every single one right because I want to know how smart I am. You see, I’d do my best. I’d pay attention to M-STEP hints. I’d do the practices. I’d go to bed early and eat breakfast and bring a bottle of water on test day. I’d read the wordy directions. If it said to write and give evidence, I’d give three or four pieces instead of one or two. If my teacher showed me what the directions are going to be like or introduced me to the on-line tools, I’d pay attention and practice them with the class.
And when the test day came, I’d try to get them all right. All of them. Every one of them. I’d care. It wouldn’t matter how I felt about the thing. It’s the test. It’s how the state of Michigan says I’m going to be evaluated. It’s how my teachers are being evaluated. It’s how my school district is being evaluated. It doesn’t matter if I like it, agree with it, want to do it, or think it’s fair. It’s the evaluation I’ve been told to take, so I’ll take it, and I’ll do my best. I’m so sick of the whining and complaints. I’m tired of the apathy and laziness. I’m exhausted trying to help so many students who don’t care. People need to care. People need to do their best. People need to conform to the test like they conform to nearly everything else in their lives and suck it up and do the best they can. I don’t like being told what to do any more than the next person, and I have opinions just like the next guy. But I have a philosophy that says when I’m put to the test, I try to do my very best.
All students need to care. The test is coming whether they like it or not. It evaluates them. They shouldn’t want to find out they’re not proficient. They shouldn’t want a bad score in their student file if they do poorly. They shouldn’t want to let their parents—or themselves—down. We all know there are flaws in the system. There will almost certainly be flaws in this new test. Philosophically, and in any and every other way, you may hate standardized testing and M-STEP. But so what? Care anyway about how you do. Do your best anyway. Prepare…take it seriously…listen…practice…follow the directions. Go above and beyond. Do the best you can because this is exactly how life is. We do what we’re told sometimes even when we don’t like it or when we think it’s stupid. It doesn’t matter when it comes to this test. We do what we have to because that is exactly how life always is.
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
In honor of the fact that it snowed again in Michigan this morning, I decided to extract an archived blog post from two winters ago (winter, by the way, sort of ends in Michigan, and there are some distinguishing characteristics of other seasons). I was observing my classroom (a.k.a. I was taking attendance and entering make-up work), and my studious pupils were absorbed in paragraph writing when—with no forewarning whatsoever—an eighth grader in the front seat of the second row vomited all over my floor. Luckily, no one was sitting beside him when he splattered the runny, liquidy mess. After hurling the revolting chowder, he never raised his head an inch. I wondered if he was too embarrassed to look up, but what I soon realized was he was too sick. Again, without any warning, he started retching, only this time I saw it happen. Out of his mouth jetted a wide stream of slimy sickness. What was on the floor quadrupled in size—at least. The hoven stream of spew was as round as his mouth and came shooting out of his throat like it was shot from a fire hose. The liquescent flow upchucked for a good seven seconds straight. The rancid, putrid gag sprayed and splashed into a pool the size of a bathtub. Students, to my amazement, scattered politely. Surprisingly, not a single one of them heaved his or her own breakfast contents. Finally, the boy, about eight pounds lighter, stumbled awkwardly out of the room (I wondered why he hadn’t thought of it before), banging into one desk and bouncing off one wall before escaping through the doorway, leaving me and his classmates with a puddle of bile large enough to drown in. Four steps from the door, we all heard round three, the jet-spray of fluid grossness splashing in the hallway.
The rank, foul smell accosted us all at once. Two windows flew open, and chilling, sub-freezing, sweet February Michigan air satiated my classroom. Everyone within fifteen feet of the stench acquired a new territory to inhabit. I calmly phoned the main office and said something like, “There’s a puddle of puke on my floor of enormous proportions. I need some help.” I wasn’t exaggerating. If there wasn’t a gallon of stomach cesspool reeking in my room…well, then there were two gallons—more than should have sensibly fit in his stomach. There was a stagnant, fetid lake on my floor.
As we waited for merciful assistance, sweatshirts stretched over noses and frosty arms embraced tightly to bodies. One girl asked what was taking so long. I said, “Our custodian isn’t a teleporter. It’ll take a few minutes to get here.” Needless to say, I focused my astonishing teacher attributes to the problem at hand. My goal wasn’t to wish the room rid of the squalid pond of putrescence; it was to get my shivering, nauseated students to finish that all-important paragraph. Girls were sticking aromatic chapsticks nearly up their noses and everyone else’s arms and faces had disappeared into loose garments. Three boys asked for permission to step into the hall, which I granted on one condition—that they take their work with them to complete, but as soon as they exited to the hallway, they stepped back in. It smelled worse out there, but at least the boy wasn’t lying dead in front of the restroom, ridded of half his body weight.
Probably eight full minutes after my emergency phone call, who do you think arrived in my room? No, it wasn’t the custodian. He was away at lunch. It was the principal’s secretary with a broom and one of those buckets of chemically treated sawdust to soak up the lagoon on my floor. I tried to find the actual name for the stuff on the internet and the best options I found were “barfbits…chunderchow…[and] spewsoaker.” If you want to visualize the bucket she was carrying, picture a three-year-old’s sand pail, and then divide it by about three. It held roughly enough spewsoaker (that’s the name I like best), to cover approximately two-square feet of the repulsive, malodorous loch on my floor. It was the secretary that suggested I escort my class to the Community Room for the remainder of the hour. Students hastily flooded out the door (pardon my pun) and gratefully reassembled in the refrigerated meeting room. Apparently, someone had opened a window in the room and the glacial Michigan air had managed to freeze it in its exposed position.
Students gathered at tables, unloading their materials, not even complaining that their newest classroom temperature was fixed at an Antarctical (I made that word up) freezessence (I made that word up too). At least they couldn’t smell that horrific barf or see that unsanitary tarn that was infesting my classroom. We got right to work. Students put pen and pencil to paper and teacher paraded around the room, my breath escaping in white clouds of glorious freedom from nasal agony. Before the bell rang to end the class, I had the assignments in my stiff, frozen fingers, and I sent my students happily on their way.
Why do I tell this story—with only the slightest of exaggeration? Because writing about gross things is amazingly entertaining and fun. And choosing awesome synonyms to describe the dreadful experience was more enjoyable yet. I did it because I had fun writing it, describing it, and choosing appropriate words for it. I’ve learned the written word can be engaging, compelling, charming, amusing, gripping, convincing, captivating, enchanting, hilarious, mesmerizing, riveting, entrancing (I’m giving my thesaurus a workout), and sickening (like this passage was). But most of all, it can be wonderfully liberating. I can say things I’ve never said before. And whether I exaggerate a touch or tell it like it really is, I get to be the one to say it, knowing that my reader gets to be the one who enjoys it (or feels queasy). I’ll never forget what happened in my classroom that Friday, but now, neither will you.
Saturday, January 24, 2015
Is writing fun? I have a whole bunch of students in school who don’t think so. Sometimes I even read comments by authors that make me think they aren’t having much fun either. But this blog is about reasons why I think writing is fun for me. Maybe some of it will ring true to my fellow writers as well.
1) I get to use my imagination. This one is so obvious that I wrote it first. I can go places, be people, and do things I can’t in real life. I can get in a female character’s mind and understand her. How awesome is that? I can do miraculous things. I can say things I’d never get away with…and be as sarcastic as I want. I get to decide what happens. I get to have my own way (and still stay married). Would I like to build a world? Perform a miracle? Have a super power? Drive a great car? Live in a different era? I could live out a fantasy if I wanted, and I could find a solution to a problem. I could go on and on, and I get to do those things and more with my imagination. It makes writing fun.
2) I get to learn things. There are some writers producing works in very popular genres who actually write books without having to do research to learn about things related to their plot. I think it would take some of the fun out of writing if I didn’t have to learn so much to make my stories click. I’ve learned about brains and trains, the paranormal and parapsychology, history and time travel, geography and theology, animals and angels, law and medicine. I’m an English teacher, for heaven sakes, and I learn about grammar every time I write. I’ve written five books and each process has been different. I learn about writing every time I write. And what can I say about all that learning? It’s been exciting…interesting…inspiring…and yes, sometimes even enjoyable.
3) It’s rewarding work. When I coached and my team won or a player improved or a parent thanked me, it was well worth the effort. When I teach and get a note from a kid or I learn that a parent moved his or her child into my class or a student makes me laugh, it’s well worth the effort. I get some of those same rewards as an author. There are lots of feel good moments, making the work worthwhile. But the most rewarding thing about writing (besides a large royalty check) is finishing a book—the satisfaction of accomplishment. There’s a huge reward that comes with the achievement. And if it sells and readers give positive feedback, it’s even better. Nothing that’s worthwhile comes easy. And with work comes sweat and occasional disappointment and failure. To finish a book, however, makes it all worthwhile, and that’s pleasurable.
4) I get to share myself with others. Some people go through life without ever opening up. Believe me, writing opens writers up. Readers may not know they’re seeing me when they read, but incorporated into my stories are my experiences, passions, beliefs, anxieties, friends, failures, and sense of humor. You don’t know if that character is me or not or if that stupid thing he did is something stupid I did too (it probably is) or if that story that’s told is legit or greatly enhanced or if movies, books, authors, sports teams, foods, or songs I mention are because I happen to like them. You don’t know that for sure, but I do, and it’s exciting to be immortalized inside a book. Only authors can do that.
5) It’s cool to hide things in my books. There’s a small animal in each of my books. There’s a mini-grammar lesson in each book. There’s a reference to at least one favorite author or book character in each book. There’s at least one character in each book from pop culture whose name is made fun of and another or two whose name is simply…well, one that would make the nurses at the hospital shake their heads when the child was named. It’s entertaining being creative, knowing I put things in my books that are uniquely me.
6) I’ve written things that have made me cry. I’ve written things that’ve made me laugh. I’ve written things that have caused me to send it to friends or read to my family because I’m so happy about it. There are times when I’m stuck and in the middle of the most obscure activity, the solution pops into my head, and I can’t wait to get back to work. The emotions involved in a writer’s work can be a roller coaster, but who doesn’t like a roller coaster? Roller coasters are great, aren’t they? Writing gives me experiences that I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget waking up in the middle of the night and scrawling the ending to my first novel on a pad of paper in the dark. I’ll never forget the exact moment I solved the mysteries to my second and third novels. I cried at some point in the writing of four of the five books I’ve penned. Writing is gratifying.
7) Finally, I’ve come full circle, and though this is similar to #1 above, writing is a pleasurable way to escape. Life’s problems can disappear for a while when I write. Stress for work or money problems or stupid decisions I’ve made can be forgotten temporarily. Who needs yoga? When I write, I can get alone, and not be alone because my characters are real to me. I can get the focus off my issues and deal with theirs. I can get away from my world and get mixed up somewhere else in theirs. I can get away from people that get me down. And characters I don’t like or who deserve karma or justice, I can kill them or ruin them (and not be a psychopath) or put them in jail or at least put them in their place. For sure, it’s never boring.
I started by asking the question, “Is writing fun?” I suppose that’s an opinion question, but for a real writer, maybe it’s a rhetorical one instead. Of course it’s fun. I (we) get to use my (our) imaginations, we get to learn things, we find it rewarding, we share ourselves, we can do unique things, we get to feel things, and we get to escape. Those are all great reasons to turn a hobby or a talent into a passion. Give it a try sometime and experience the fun.
Sunday, December 7, 2014
In my second novel, Skeleton Key, the murder mystery revolved around a train wreck, a wreck where something went wrong with the brakes. I had a beta reader look over my manuscript and at one point, she wrote, “I think you spelled brakes wrong.” I did. There are two spellings with the same pronunciation, which I always thought was the definition of a homonym. I guess they’re also often called homophones. I did a search for “breaks” (the misspelling), and I found that I misspelled it seven times. The other thirty or so, I got right. Regardless, since I started The Red Pen, I’ve done numerous spelling posts. This one about homophones (I plan to stubbornly call them stupid spelling errors) was well over a year in the making as I looked for homonym/homophone/stupid spelling errors on the Internet and with my students at school. The list I made is incredible—funny but kind of sad at the same time. These are the most interesting of the stupid spelling errors.
1. I showered and shampooed my hare. (This was such a good idea, I showered and shampooed my cat.)
2. The book had a vampire and a wearwolf. (I’ve made my list and I’ve determined for myself that I shall never wear clothing that requires batteries, wear Crocs, wear Dickies, or wear wolves.)
3. I predict he’ll be the next American Idle. (Is this a thing to strive for? I have a whole slew of idle Americans in my English classes.)
4. No parking. Violators will be toad. (That’s a harsh punishment.)
5. Isn’t that a picture of Noah’s arc? (Well, God did provide a rainbow, so it’s possible.)
6. He was a pathetic heroine addict. (I resent the pathetic tag because I’ve been hooked on good female characters before as well. I think I’m a Jennifer Lawrence heroine addict, for instance.)
7. It was wrapped around his waste. (Most likely, this would be a garbage bag.)
8. The man had a balled head. (I hope it’s not football shaped.)
9. We had to shoe him from the shop. (This one reminds me of my student who wrote, “It’s nice to meat you.” I pictured him happily hitting someone with a pork chop—which is only slightly worse than whacking the guy with a sneaker.)
10. The Loan Ranger rides again. (Passing out money to
needy criminals, no doubt.)
11. Mix it with flower. (This is how it’s done.)
12. I was mesmerized by her bear shoulders. (People have
eagle beaks, hawk eyes, and knees like a camel, so why
not bear shoulders?)
13. He’s a cereal killer. (Aren’t we all? Breakfast is the most
important meal of the day.)
14. The earthquake berried the family. (It was at a Smucker’s
15. There’s a leek in the boat! (This doesn’t really sound like
much of an emergency to me.)
16. He walks with a smooth gate. (It’s cumbersome and
attracts a lot of attention, but it’s smooth.)
17. She has a fowl disposition. (As evidenced by how she flies
off the handle and posts angry tweets.)
18. I disgust it with my wife. (No comment.)
19. Grab a coat. It’s chili outside. (Shouldn’t they be grabbing
bowls and spoons?)
20. He’s the air to the throne. (Something like this, I assume.)
I had a list of probably 35 stupid spelling homophones collected, but by now, you get the point. This is the type of thing I deal with in class with my students and on the internet with careless adults. It’s funny though—funny as in curious. Almost every stupid spelling error I wrote above is underlined in my text—a sure sign to the writer that a stupid spelling error has been made. The spell check feature is pretty handy for a writer. And if a writer isn’t sure about a homonym/homophone and is wary of making a stupid spelling error, all he or she has to do is go to Google and type “bear or bare” or “gait or gate,” for instance, and incredibly, there is an answer that’s handy within a portion of a second.
In Bulletproof in an early scene, a drunk bar patron announces to a man from whom he’d just won a bet that he needed “to take a leek.” My aunt sent me a giggling note on Facebook saying, “That’s a vegetable, Jeff.” We all make mistakes, but that doesn’t change the fact that each and every one of them is a stupid spelling error. Its time that defenders of there language stood up and said allowed, “Get you’re homophones write!” (Otherwise, it’ll look like five more stupid spelling errors.) Class dismissed.